The last time the College Area’s community plan was updated was in 1989 — too long ago for College Area Planning Board chair Jose Reynoso and a group of residents who set out to speed up the city’s process of updating community plans by drafting a plan of their own.
The idea to draft a community plan update (CPU) was born two years ago when Reynoso and College View Estates resident Mike Jenkins were working on an ordinance to regulate mini-dorms. That ordinance was eventually ruled unconstitutional.
“We were attempting to address symptoms of a problem, not the problem itself,” Reynoso said. “And the problem itself was an insufficient amount of housing, student housing, immediately adjacent to San Diego State.”
So Reynoso and Jenkins approached the planning board with the idea to ask the city to make a specific plan for the areas around College Avenue and Montezuma Road that would address the growing need for student housing and also reshape the area into a cohesive neighborhood highlighting the college experience.
“Make the area a destination, because our vision was to make the area a college town atmosphere, what you would expect in a typical college town — bookstores, coffee houses, bars, restaurants, you name it. Make it an attraction,” Reynoso said. “You don’t have that anywhere in San Diego and we have the opportunity to do it here.”
Another positive pitch for the plan to build more student housing close to campus — where there is the most demand — is that it could also alleviate the issues associated with mini-dorms.
“And hopefully preserve the residential neighborhoods around the campus,” Reynoso said. “My hope is that a lot of the houses that are currently mini-dorms, as soon as they get competition from multi-resident student housing, will revert back to single-family units.”
The specific plan idea was immediately supported by the planning board, most of the area’s community groups, the apartment owners association, San Diego’s city planning director and even former City Manager Jack McGrory, who all wrote letters in support of the idea.
However, once the group looked into it further, there was a problem with the scope of the plan — it wasn’t large enough.
An idea evolves
“You can’t just look at one area that may create traffic changes for example, it affects the entire community,” Reynoso said. “And we were long overdue for a community plan update.”
So the idea of a creating a new specific plan for the area near campus evolved into drafting a complete CPU for the entire College Area — the area bordered by Interstate 8 to the north, Collwood Boulevard to the west, El Cajon Boulevard to the south and the city of La Mesa to the east.
Many of San Diego’s communities have recently updated their plans, including Mission Valley, Old Town, North Park and Midway. While some updates like the one in Old Town have gone smoothly, other CPUs in areas such as North Park and Midway have been met with resistance by residents and other stakeholders in their respective areas. Reynoso hopes that by taking a more proactive approach to the plan update process, consensus on the new plan will be reached easier.
“The way it has worked in the past is [the city will] do an existing conditions analysis and then there is a project team within the city that puts together a team that includes community members, particularly from the planning board, and then they present ideas to people, which is why North Park, for example, took six years, Midway took 10 years — because they came in and imposed ideas. There was an uproar, lawsuits, it dragged on.”
To avoid the kind of resistance and infighting that hobbled other CPUs, Reynoso and other residents volunteered to form a Steering Committee and began organizing meetings to gather input and ideas from locals as to what they wanted the future of the College Area to look like. That went on for two years and culminated in a community forum held at the Ugly Dog pub, attended by nearly 100 residents sharing ideas for the new plan.
“It reinforced the vision, almost a consensus vision, that the community has for the long-term future of the area,” Reynoso said.
At that meeting, Howard Blackson, a local urban designer who was invited to attend, counseled that there were enough resources for the planning group to put together an update plan by themselves and present to the city.
“And there are benefits to that,” Reynoso said. “Number one, because of the comments from the visioning, that plan we already know would encompass the growth goals that the city has — climate action plan goals, mobility goals, etc. — those goals are embraced by our community.
“And if we do it, by definition, that means the community supports it, which means there is less chance of it being challenged when it goes for approvals at the Planning Commission,” he continued. “And when it goes for final approval at City Council, there’ll less likely be any controversy because the council will know this is what the community wants.”
Not long after the meeting at the Ugly Dog, Reynoso and the other planning group members knew it was time to involve more of the area’s stakeholders, like SDSU. So the group officially created an advisory board for the master plan update that included students, developers, planners, environmental groups, residents — anyone they felt should have a say in the direction of the plan.
They contacted SDSU urban planning faculty members and asked them to get involved and invited them to a meeting. Among those who attended was professor Bruce Appleyard, who not only committed to the master plan idea, he also offered to have one of his classes in spring 2019 take on the project to develop a CPU, using the visions for the area that the community had compiled at the Ugly Dog.
Appleyard’s students were broken up into different teams to tackle housing, mobility, existing conditions and other parts of the plan. To get updates from the class, the College Area Community Council (CACC) hired two interns — Daniel Shirazi and Richard Xie, who are still part of the project’s Steering Committee today.
Ready to go
Hiring interns and developing a master plan — even one in its infancy — costs money. To get things going, CACC funded $5,000 to develop the plan.
For other needed funds, the Steering Committee members approached the usual channels. They met with Mike Hansen, head of the city’s Planning Department and presented their vision. As it turns out, Reynoso said, the Planning Department had already applied for and received a $700,000 SANDAG grant for a smart growth plan for College Area that “almost identically mirrored” the objectives and visions the residents suggested for the developing plan.
In the latest budget, City Council President Georgette Gomez requested $1 million for developing the College Area CPU and got it, bringing the funding for a new plan to $1.7 million.
The city’s goal was to have its Planning Department take over working on the plan by end of summer or fall of this year, which is perfect timing because the draft plan created by the CACC Steering Committee is almost ready for review.
Reynoso said that a typical CPU process takes the city about three years to complete.
“We’re looking to reduce that. We are optimistic that it can be done in 18 months,” he added. “The current conditions report, most of it is done already, outreach has been done, ideas gathered already, the data is already there, it may need to be fine-tuned, but we’ve probably saved the city about a year.”
Community members will get to see what is in the draft plan when it is presented for a vote of approval by the College Area Planning Board at its Nov. 13 meeting. The plan will then be sent to the city for review, as well as review by the public.
“We’re trying to make this as transparent as possible,” Reynoso said. “All the comments that we got at that visions session at Ugly Dog are up at our website. All the minutes from the Steering Committee meetings are there. I go to every community meeting to keep them updated on what’s going on and get more people involved.”
For more information, visit collegearea.org.
—Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.